Fuse #8

Thursday, August 31, 2006

From the Files Of: Okay. Seriously Now, People.

$500-an-Hour Tutors the Latest Teenage Accessory
Sometimes I hate this city.

Mmmmm. Posies.

I have a lovely post for you lads and ladies this morning. Weirdo writing rituals of the literarily famous. Any site that happens to contain the sentence, "It is alleged that Henry David Thoreau could swallow his nose", has my instant and undying love.

Bloggers, I would suspect, are exempt from writing rituals. I do not eat with knife and fork large bouquets of flowers nor do I keep my lover’s slippers and mittens in my desk drawer. Then again, my blog will not be passed down throughout the ages. Perhaps it is time to begin.

Thank you Alice's CWIM Blog for the link.

The Monster At the End of this Site

Not being a librarian in a system smaller than, say, the population of the state of Delaware, I don't have to deal with a lot of issues facing school teachers and librarians nationwide. For example, I never have to worry about starting a new catalog from scratch in a school library or classroom. Not an issue! If it were, however, I guess I'd be pretty durn excited about this Delicious Monster thingy. According to Esme Codell (who should know) the site contains, "shareware that allows you to automate your personal collection of books! That means, teachers, you can scan in your classroom collection, beep-beep-beep, and look things up and check things out, just like a real library, only interfacing with snazzy Mac graphics!".

Huh. Whodathunkit? If you want to go even more low tech, however, stick with good old Library Thing. To each his own.

Buy Buy Buy

For those of you familiar with my library branch, the Donnell Central Children's Room likes to describe itself thusly:
Originally housed in The New York Public Library's landmark Central Research Library on Fifth Avenue, the Central Children's Room is a national leader in childrens services. Today, over 100,000 volumes provide a wealth of material for children of all ages, and for adults.
Emphasis on the "wealth". Recently the Bookseller Blog featured a little article entitled, Libraries Caught Off-Guard by Nostalgia Book Buyers. With the rise of eBay and all that jazz, plenty of people are checking out rare children's books, reporting them as "lost" to the library, and then paying a much lower fee than they'll eventually be paid online for the same book. My library, thank heavens, is probably not particularly prone to this scam. Still, we used to have a huge children's book sale every year at which booksellers would burst through our doors, hungrily snatching up anything potentially valuable that they could find. It put one to thinking of uncouth young baboons, only with slightly less inherant dignity.

Review of the Day: That Girl Lucy Moon

I was born contrary. Should you crow a little too loudly about how good this thing or that thing is, I immediately decide to set about sniffing out its flaws. I don’t want to come across as easily won over. Never. You see where this is leading, don’t you? For a while now I haven’t been able to so much as glance at a children’s literature blog without eventually seeing the writer go into fits of pure ecstasy over Amy Timberlake’s, “The Girl Lucy Moon”. Was I going to be so easily swayed by the pack? No sir! This “Lucy Moon” business was going to have to do a puh-reety good job if it wanted to win my heart any time soon. Thus thinking I picked it up, gave it a look-see and… uh…

Okay, fine.

I really really liked it. I’ve a soft-spot in my heart for books of kiddie activism. The excellent writing, plotting, and arc of the title just happened to be a nice plus.

Up until this moment in time, Lucy Moon has enjoyed a certain amount of infamy. Everyone in her elementary school knew who she was. She was the kid with the extra long braids and the yellow and green hemp hat that, when asked to remove the article, would launch into a well-rehearsed dialogue on the exploitation of Mexican workers, sometimes managing to work in a small “and did you know that hemp should be legal” speech on the side. She was the one who defended ants when boys fried them with magnifying glasses and led protests on a regular basis. But now everything’s different. Lucy has just started the sixth grade in Middle School and she’s not as sure of herself as she once was. To boot, her mother has taken off on a cross-country road trip in which she hopes to photograph cloud formations around the U.S. That might be okay (she does this sort of thing once a year) but this time she doesn’t look as if she’s coming back. Then two kids are arrested while sledding down Wiggins Hill. Immediately Lucy launches into action, reporting on the arrest when even the local papers refuse to and organizing a small protest against the most powerful woman in town, Miss Wiggins. What Lucy doesn’t expect is the violent backlash against her small objections. Now she must face overwhelming punishment for acting within her rights while dealing with her personal issues at home.

It may be done on a small scale, but what this book is doing, to some extent, is rather epic. On the surface it may only be about a girl who goes head to head with the establishment and sees the extent to which it works against her. Expand it a little farther and this is about basic civil liberties. To object to the closing off of Wiggins Hill by Miss Wiggins, Lucy creates little postcards for the other kids in the school to send to the hill’s owner. Sending postcards in this manner, if done politely, is not harassment nor, for that matter, illegal. Yet the entire process ends with Lucy threatened with suspension for even attempting such a thing. This is deeply unfair, but how different is it from actions taken against everyday citizens in this or any other country? “That Girl Lucy Moon” is about oppression, pure and simple, but rendered in a form that kids everywhere can understand. As a person, Lucy's defense of her beliefs makes perfect sense. She’s the ideal heroine. Why does she fight? “She did it in order to release the pressure that injustice created inside of her”. Still, there’s more to her than that.

This defense of our civil liberties is coupled against two other central story elements. Timberlake, as an author, is setting up the theme of fighting oppression while also making Lucy a realistic human being. I mean, Lucy may fight against something bigger than herself, but she’s not perfect by any stretch. When her friend Zoe makes up a remarkable imitation of the local town paper with the story of the sledders’ arrest front and center, Lucy fails to give her any credit. Later on, Lucy is almost entirely beaten down by the forces she’s trying to fight. Her response? Well, for a little while she just gives up entirely. All she wants to do is sleep all day, a classic case of depression. Though she’s only in the sixth grade, Lucy has both a personal and professional life to balance, and neither one of them are going too smoothly. After all, finding herself living with just her father is like, “being left with a relative seen only on major holidays, maybe like an uncle who is an officer in the army and is used to a little authority”. What impressed me was the degree to which Lucy’s father, not someone she’s really been close to in the past, comes through for her. There was a 30 second moment while I read this book when I thought that maybe Lucy’s dad was going to drop the ball, leaving a huge plot gap in the center of the novel. Then Timberlake filled that gap with an expert hand and I was left feeling both relieved and impressed.

Then on top of all of this, Timberlake makes the book funny. No really! Think about how hard the two must be. To be honestly amusing and deal with huge issues on such a small scale… and then to make it funny to boot. Puberty in middle school? “But hormones were just chemicals, right? So if her reaction had been caused by a brain-chemical spill, like the Valdez oil spill off the coast of Alaska, there should be some sort of clean-up program to initiate”. Or how about referring to an unattractive coat as being akin to “puppet flesh”? We can all debate amongst ourselves whether or not that or the later descriptor of calling a thrift shop shirt, “Grover fur”, is funnier. Later, Lucy is asked to say what she is thankful for on Thanksgiving. “There was a long pause as she tried to think thankful thoughts. It was like waiting for a herd of tortoises to climb a hill”.

And then the writing itself is often prone to the occasional spark of beauty. “Sledders dreamed about that extra slide, when the air turned so blue that the whole world looked like it was underwater, and the only light came from reflection of the dusk moon on the blue-white snow”. Magnificent.

The story also puts into words the small truths that exist in this world but go unnoticed until someone is able to write them down on paper. For example, eventually the kids in Lucy’s school decide to give her their support. This might strike some as out of character, but Timberlake is able to back it up. “… the kids at the junior high began to feel the invoking of that ancient line in the sand that separates kids from adults: the us and them, the out-of-the-know and the in-the-know, the powerless and the powerful”. You could say as much for any oppressed people when a member of their community is punished as an “example”. Finally, another thing the book did that few children’s books think to is illustrate the degree to which it is important for kids to sometimes get apologies, “unembellished with excuses”.

There have been quite a few interesting books in which a kid is ostracized or, worse still, actively disliked by the majority of their school’s student body. “Home, and Other Big, Fat Lies”, by Jill Wolfson was one such example. Few books really bring the idea home quite as well as “Lucy Moon”, though. The ups and downs of middle school popularity (to say nothing of whether or not its even worth it) are cataloged here in shockingly realistic detail. My friends, I wasn’t just won over by this book. I was bowled over by this book. It fully deserves the acclaim it’s undoubtedly going to receive. I haven’t even found a way to mention so many of the other things I liked about this book. Things like the pure Minnesotan taste of it all, or the fact that the local radio station plays things like, “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” on the Theremin. So let's just end this review with the last lines in the book. “At the junior high, things continued on, except that some students began to question. Questions turned out to be a bigger thing than most of them realized”.

This year’s must-read book.

Notes On the Cover: I don’t think this will fall into the category of Universally Beloved Cover Illustration, but I like it. Not least because the artist somehow managed to find the perfect Lucy Moon hat. It’s from www.hemp-sisters.com, adding to its authenticity since Lucy brings up her hat’s hemp status in the book itself. The toboggan in the upper right hand corner is nice, but I really liked the weathered blue background. Word on the street informs me that the book in its hardcover form will also have deep burgundy endpapers. Manifique.

Be sure to check out author Amy Timberlake's website as well.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Apocalypse Pooh

Pooh has been bugging me all week to post this. I tried telling him that it was really more of a Disney Pooh thing than anything to do with the real Milne Pooh but he's having none of it. With that in mind I present it to you now. It really is only gonna make sense to anyone who's seen both Apocalypse Now and Winnie-the-Pooh. Also, I personally feel that the degraded film quality really adds to the whole experience (especially at the end).

What's Up With the Bird Children?

Just in case anyone ever tries to convince you that historical decorative materials are dull:
In researching historic decorative material offered by Lanston Monotype as well as other metal foundries, such as Barnhart Brothers and Spindler, there were occasionally ornaments that defied description. Perhaps it was a Victorian sense of humor or someone really thought these were a good idea or perhaps popular taste has just changed so much over the last hundred years, or our forebears were completely insane. In any case, LTC is somewhat proud to present a collection of the most bizarre, disturbing and baffling printers ornaments we could find.

If I have nightmares tonight where I keep repeating the mysterious phrase, "Bird children.... must destroy the bird children...", you'll know who to blame.

Well It Just Makes Good Common Sense

My question is why it took them so long to come up with this idea. Thank you Disco Mermaids.

Hey, Authors! Come n' Write It!

"Why do the numbers of girls interested in the sciences decrease as they move into high school and higher education?" Girls aren't going into the sciences like they should be and The Feminist Press at CUNY alongside the National Science Foundation wants to change all that. The solution? They're calling for the following:
You’ll find several requests for specific proposals below. One calls for scientific detective stories based on the life, research, and discoveries of real women scientists. Another calls for stories featuring real young women—aspiring gymnasts, ice skaters, actors, dancers--using a knowledge of science to help them become really good at what they do. A third recognizes how popular Manga and graphic novels are with girls, and asks for imaginative new collaborations between Manga writers and artists to create adventures about girls who use real science to accomplish their goals.
Details are available at their website. And as someone who would have preferred to swallow small hot nails rather than take another Geometry or Chemistry class in high school, I understand the need. I also like that the call for proposals includes a Manga element. Well done there.
Thanks to Critical Mass for the link.

Evolution of the Speech Balloon

Like you never wondered how they came about. The birth of the graphic novel finds its beginnings in "speechbands" circa 1404. The more you know, eh?

Review of the Day: Singing Hands

Different books have different attitudes when it comes to grabbing your average child reader's attention. Sometimes a children's title, particularly if it happens to be of the historical fiction persuasion, will meander about. It'll lazily traipse its storyline hither and thither, confident that young readers will find the will or the desperation to follow it wheresoever it may go. Then there are books like Delia Ray's, "Singing Hands". You open the book and the first thing you see is a twelve-year-old preacher's daughter of a deaf congregation humming up a storm right smack dab in the middle of her father's communion. THAT wakes your average reader up, and from there on in it keeps a tight headlock on your attention so that all a person can do is read straight through to the end without interruption. That too is Ms. Ray's charm. Any writer can tell a story that has an interesting concept. Few, however, could find a way to wrangle that interest to the ground within the space of a couple opening sentences.

"Up until the summer of 1948, when I was twelve, probably the worst thing I ever did was hum in church". So says Gussie Davis. Gussie and her sisters are the hearing daughters of deaf parents and as such they have an interesting life. Knowing full well the naughtiness of what she does, Gussie hums away like a bandit during her father's services, until the day she is outed by a fellow hearing person visiting that Sunday. Her father takes this to mean that Gussie misses singing and before she knows it our heroine is being bussed off every Sunday to a local hearing Episcopal church. Not long thereafter Gussie starts skipping Sunday school and purloining the collection money. Oh, and did I mention that she also stole a neighbor's old love letter on the sly? Between the hearing world and the deaf one, Gussie's losing her place. It's going to take a trip to a deaf school and a chance to buck the system while there to give this girl the confidence she so desperately needs.

The book takes place in 1948 Birmingham, Alabama, which is a difficult time period to say the least. No responsible writer could ever tackle such a period, no matter what their subject matter, without giving at least a little attention to the prevalent racism of the time. Fellow 1944 North Carolina set children's novel "Blue" by Joyce Moyer Hostetter did a similar thing this year, but in the case of "Blue" the African American subplot felt forced and unnecessary. Here Ray weaves the story of Abe, a deaf black child, smoothly within Gussie's greater tale. Abe is sent, at Gussie's father's suggestion, to a school for black deaf children. The school is separate and cheaper than its white equivalent, allowing Ray to show rather than tell the problems with segregation at the time. Best of all, Gussie is able to view this unfair situation and become infuriated by it without ever feeling like a 21st century girl living in a 20th century novel. No mean feat.

Kudos too to Ray for creating a kid with a conscience who nevertheless keeps doing bad things. Not life threatening things. Nothing things that would necessarily endanger her soul. Just naughty, often awful, things. If character is key then Gussie is o'erflowing with it. Each person in this book is as distinct and individualized as any author could hope to make them. Even Gussie's supposedly saintly father is continually leaving his family and spending a lot more time with people that aren't his kids. No one is perfect here and no one exempt from their own personal flaws. Top notch writing too, by the way. I like reading a writer who has the guts to write sentences like, "With my cheeks still burning, I squeezed the penny in my hand tighter and tighter, as if I could wring blood from copper".

To my mind, children's chapter book fiction relies on a couple essential components. You've got your characters. You've got your skill with the pen itself. And then there is the much maligned and too often underrated sense of humor. All authors should have this. It's a rare and difficult thing to nurture within one's own self, I know. Should any of you writers feel less than up to the task, take a couple pointers from Ms. Ray here. Some of the lighter moments in this book ring of the anecdotes Ray undoubtedly culled from her mother for her book. For example, when one of the girls freaks out at night thinking that there might be a kidnapper in the neighborhood, her deaf mother responds to her late night fear with a mild, "I don't hear anything" and goes back to sleep. Never underestimate the power of a good dry wit.

In her Author's Note at the back of the book, Ray reveals that this book is in many ways her mother's story. Her mother grew up as a hearing daughter of deaf pastoral parents. Ms. Ray has even gone so far to include a picture of the family on which Gussie's family was based. All the characters of the book are there, including a young man that apparently didn't quite make the cut. In this section readers will get a fascinating bit of info on the facts behind the story, including some ways in which deaf people were prejudiced against in the past.

Altogether a fine piece of work. I read a lot of historical fiction in conjunction with my children's librarian job, and much of it is very good and very well written. Few books, however, come across as anything I would have actually liked if I were a kid myself. I think "Singing Hands" may well be the first book this year to strike me as something I'd recommend to my 12-year-old self. Higher praise than that you'd be hard pressed to find.

Notes On the Cover: Bravo, Clarion Press. This may take place in 1948, but you steered clear of the desire to just sepia-tone the whole kerschmozzle (or, worse still, some random photograph of a girl) and leave it at that. A Mr. Matt Manley (great name) has given us this pretty pretty picture of a strong appropriate-for-her-time-period girl standing with her arms crossed. Music is swirling about her in this really lovely combo of cream and blue. Best of all, however, are the overlapping silhouettes in the background, acting out the climax of the book. Classy, yes. But also something a kid might want to pick up. An intriguing cover that looks like somebody cared about giving this book just the right presentation.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Children's Literature Quik Quiz

One, I should point out, that's not appropriate for children. You'll never look at a beloved children's icon the same again.

Hot Men of Children's Literature: Part 25 In a Series

I've had the few, the proud, the too often mortified Hot Men of Children's Literature nominated by publishers, fans, friends, you name it. This week, however, ye olde Fuse #8 reached a milestone when we received a nomination from a previous Hot Man of Children's Literature. Actually, the word "nomination" is a bit of a stretch. In the words of the nominator, "I have not, however anonymously, recommended Mr. [...] as a 'hot' man. I am hoping for provisonal probation. I want Mr. [...] to suffer". Which is to say, the nominator would prefer the following:
For the period of, say, six months, [...] would be a provisional, probationary ‘hot’ man. During this term he would be obligated to return to you a monthly proof of ‘heat’ in the form of images of him reading his humorous tomes to a group of adorable kittens or something of that nature. Should Mr. [...] live up to his obligations of heat, he may take my, anonymous, slot.
The temptation to follow through on such a suggestion is immense. Men could compete to become Hot Men of Children's Literature. The mind boggles. Then the mind remembers that it is A) Married and B) Way too busy to spend its spare hours sifting through pics of insipient Hot Men baking fudge brownies or what have you.

There were other factors on the side of this week's male as well. First, I have received no more and no less than five e-mails, two within the last 7 days, begging me to include him. None, for the record, were from him. And these might have begun to sway me a tad, but it wasn't until I Googled the fellow myself that I was sold. Holy mother of all things bright and beautiful, that man is HOT! God knows when the last time was that I had a fellow on here that everyone (not the least my anonymous tipster) could agree upon.

Thus it is that I present to you at long long last, the man who basically comes off as not only talented but quite successful as of late, and a nice fellow to boot...

Jarrett J. Krosoczka

... or, if you don't mind ignoring the rubes surrounding him, he's the one dead center in the back...

If his name sounds familiar (rivaling only Jon Scieszka in terms of tongue twistiness), you may remember that it was his picture book Punk Farm that was acquired by Dreamworks earlier this year for future CGI goodness. All I care? His My Buddy, Slug was sent to me at my library yesterday and it's a hoot.

Do yourself a favor and check out his website. And he blogs too! Best of all, he has learned to harness the power of You Tube. Observe:

Page by Page: the making of a monkey boy


Last night I was enjoyed the company of a whole host of lovely children's literature lovin' ladies. The child_lit listserv (Unofficial Motto: Philip Pullman Writes On Us!) has periodic group dinners here in NYC. So last night about 8 of us decided to traipse on down to the World Trade area of town and have a lovely little picnic in a small park there. Good conversation was present. Prosciutto was present. Wine was present. Cops were also, unfortunately, present due to the latter item. Instead of hauling us in, however, (and what good copy Drunken Librarians Busted at World Trade Center Site would have made in The Post too) the cops were very nice and told us how to go about concealing drinks in the future. I assured the others that I would blog accordingly, and so I have. A tip of the hat to our fine NYC force.

So Many Things To Put On Notice. So Little Board.

Originally uploaded by Ramseelbird.

God help me, I was feeling cheeky. And you should all know that the reference to The Looking Glass Wars is not a strike against John le Carre's Cold War classic. Give me some credit, after all.

Review of the Day: Hanne's Quest

This sounds a little odd to say, but I can’t think of a better way of introducing this book than to say the following: From the creator of “Gossie”, "Ollie" and “Gossie & Gertie” comes an epic quest novella... about a chicken. If that doesn’t trip smoothly off the old tongue it's little wonder. Dunrea and his corresponding publisher Philomel (a division of the Penguin Young Readers Group) decided to do things a little differently with this small folksy book. It’s a nice story with a steady heart and a practical soul. It also treads some overly familiar ground, however, so if you’re looking for something with a storyline that doesn’t sound like something you’ve heard many times before, consider searching elsewhere. It's a pleasant little story that is sure to endear itself with some. Just make certain that the person you purchase it for belongs to that selfsame “some”.

For years and years Mem Pockets has run her little farmhouse and chicken coop with a staid and loving hand. In that time she has made a habit of collecting eggs from her remarkable Scaldy hens to sell them at market. Nothing shakes her pleasant world until the arrival of a letter informing her that she owes quite a lot of back taxes. Mem is distraught, not having the money at hand and knowing that within thirty days she will be forced to leave the home she loves, to say nothing of the chickens. The hens, for their part, realize that something must be done. After a quick conference it is understood that a single hen must go on a quest of great peril. If she survives the barrow, the Standing Stones, and the Green Great Sea, she will have the ability to lay three golden eggs. Only a chicken of the purest heart born in the darkest phase of the moon can go, and that hen, believe it or not, is the youngest of the brood. She is a little black chicken by the name of Hanne, who carries with her a quiet strength. Now, in spite of her size and timid nature, Hanne will set off to save the farm and help Mem Pockets. Whatever the cost.

Dunrea writes with a slow steady hand. Your average reader gets the feeling that he’s working at his own pace and feels little need to hurry-scurry through the various plot element too quickly. It’s reminiscent of the old “Wind In the Willows”, but for a much younger set. There’s also a nice low-key wisdom to the characters in this book. When a mole informs Hanne in the barrow that, “Things are never black as they may seem”, the book leaves enough room for little ones to draw their own conclusions. Perhaps a little more confusing (as in, “What is the author trying to say?”) is when that same mole later states that, “We cannot choose our Fate in this world”. Make of that what you will.

There are some lovely things in this book. Comfortable things. Though it is never given a country, the feel of the story is very British, albeit the Britain of small islands and villages. There’s a pagan feel to the tale that makes it all very interesting too. Mem Pockets celebrates Midsummer’s Eve and on the Winter Solstice, “the old woman sat up all night with the hens and told them about the Mystery of the Death of the Old Year”. Good wins over evil, as would be expected, and in the end the bad guy is arrested for... um... being a bad guy, I guess. It's a little unclear. Ditto how the chickens reproduce without any roosters around.

In the School Library Journal review of this book, the reviewer noted that, “Dunrea’s hens and chickens are infused with charm; folk-art galleries would provide a better setting for his art than a chapter book”. Certainly there are some strong similarities between this book and Bruce McMillan’s, “The Problem With Chickens”. I thought Dunrea did a lovely job with many full-color pictures in this book, making it so that it doesn’t really fall readily into any one category. The pictures, lush evocative gouache, complement the story to a tee. I felt they worked with the story, as a readaloud. So no objections here. One on one readers might find them a bit young for their liking, I suppose.

It’s no coincidence that booksellers like Barnes and Nobles and Amazon.com have chosen to pair “Hannne’s Quest” with Kate DiCamillo’s simultaneous release, “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane”. Both books share a sense of nostalgia, “Tulane” for the supposed “classic” children’s books of the past and “Hanne’s Quest” for low-key folktales about doing what is right. Both books are also so steeped in this nostalgia that they fail to make a convincing case for why they themselves are original works of art and not mere copies of older titles. The ideal customers of “Hanne’s Quest” are the grandmothers and aunts of kids who want to give their young relatives something that squeaks of timelessness. There is a possibility that “Hanne’s Quest” will be deeply beloved of the youngsters who receive it, true. There is, however, an equal possibility that it is the kind of story that will never see the light of a second or third read. I believe the book is deserving of consideration, but I do not think it needs much more than that. Nicely written but not something that will stick in your mind very long after you, or the child you read it to, finishes with it.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Run! Run For Your Lives

Forget oil or natural resources. We're running out of ISBN numbers!!!

519 Students Suspended For Not Doing Summer Reading

I don't write 'em.
I just report 'em.

Young Adult Novels - A History

From David Lubar back in 2003.
A sampling:
In the eighties, angst reigns supreme. During that decade, YA novels give us 837 rapes, 943 murders, 1,247 suicides, 12,457 dead parents, 19,382 dead pets, and three smiles. Legions of dogs are bred for the sole purpose of dying in the penultimate chapter. So many parents drown that the Red Cross steps in to offer free adult swim lessons to any interested fictional characters. Loneliness runs rampant -- nobody wants to be the main character's best friend because that's almost a guaranteed death sentence. During this period, I attempt to write books using my first two initials, but people misread the meaning of D. R. Lubar and hound me for amphetamine prescriptions.
Thanks to Interactive Reader for the link, who in turn got it from Cynsations.

Brilliant PR Blitz Or Frightening Looniness? You Be the Judge.

Great posting on BookMoot this morning. It seems that the good folks who brought you the idea of banning the bilingual version of Clifford the Big Red Dog and Disney's Christmas Storybook are back with a whole new nuttier series of books to remove from our precious children's hands. Know what's inappropriate for kids today? Talking owls and ... uh ... girls, I guess. The Burning--Guardians of Ga'hoole, Book 6 by Kathryn Lasky and Becoming Naomi Leon by Pam Munoz Ryan are on the hit list. I think BookMoot said it best when she commented,
If this is not just a publicity stunt (did your PR agency recommend this action?) then I call on the EPA for an emergency investigation of the water supply in Antelope Valley. While you are at it, check the air quality in the administrative building. They are drinking or breathing something funny out there.

Back Again

While perusing Jen Robinson's recent posting on how she had recently purchased some reissued reprints of older children's books, I was delighted to discover she mentioned my much beloved and too often forgotten Below the Root. This book was basically the City of Ember / Giver / Windsinger / any-other-book-where-a-kid-gets-an-assigned-job-at-12 title of its day. Why was I so attached to this particular title as a child? Because I owned, played, and loved the video game version.

So I was a little surprised to find it back in print after all these years. The author, Zilpha Keatley Snider, is well-known in certain circles but not necessarily a household name. According to the Amazon.com link, I discovered a publisher known as backinprint.com. Basically, they describe themselves as such:
The Authors Guild is the nation's oldest and largest professional society of published authors, representing more than 8,000 writers. The Authors Guild Backinprint Bookstore is pleased to bring readers access to a variety of titles that were previously out-of-print.
Whatever their reasons, this is an organization to watch. Now can we do something about bringing back The Noisy Counting book please?

Review of the Day: Alphabet of Dreams

Blurbs and book descriptions can be great. If you see, for example, an enticing cover in the bookstore, blurbs have the power to make or break your potential purchase. If the description sounds remarkable, the blurb is the book’s friend. If the description sounds deathly deadly dull, the blurb and book are foes. But you see, I don’t read blurbs. I like books to surprise me. To have stories and plots that jump out of nowhere and throttle my attention soundly. In short, I like to know as little about a book as possible before I read it. And since my focus in life is to concentrate wholeheartedly on children’s books, blurbs are avoided at all times at all costs. Good thing too. Had I known the plot of “Alphabet of Dreams” beyond the initial premise I might have labeled this book too soon. As it was, my slow realization of what this story was about liberated me to feel especially proud of myself and proud of author Susan Fletcher for so skillfully drawing out the story’s elegant elements. If you’re anything like me and you’d like to unravel the mystery behind “Alphabet of Dreams” on your own, stop reading this review and know only this: Excellent book. Excellent plot. Excellent characters. A classy affair through and through. Nuff said.

First sentence: “When we lived in the City of the Dead, my brother dreamed mostly of food”. Little wonder. Mitra and her little brother Babak are displaced members of a Persian royal family. Due to their father’s failed plot to overthrow King Phraates, the two have been separated from the rest of their family and live as beggers in the city of Rhagae. That is, until fourteen-year-old Mitra (dressed as a boy and going by the name of Ramin) discovers that Babak has a dangerous gift. Simply place an article of clothing under his sleeping head and in the morning he’ll dream a portentous dream for the owner of that material. Always on the lookout for a way to return to the life she once knew, Mitra uses Babak’s power to restore them to the city of Palmyra, where she hopes to find their kin. Unfortunately, knowledge of this dreamer reaches the ears of the powerful everywhere. Now Babak and Mitra are in the possession of a magus with dreams of power. And as the boy’s dreams concern a birth, stars, and a king, it becomes clear that there is something at work far greater than either child could fathom. Something so great that it may kill Babak to dream of it.

At what point did my slow moving brain realize that this story was concerned with the three Magi? You see, that’s the caravan that Mitra and Babak eventually end up with. Somehow I could have caught on right from the start if I’d looked more closely at the map at the beginning of the book. Yup. There’s Bethlehem clear as clear can be. But somehow I missed both that clue and the moment when the first Magus (clue #2, I suppose) was introduced as Melchior. It really wasn’t until Babak had a dream about a Jewish king with sores that I began to get clued in. Then when they met up with a second Magus named Gasper… well you can imagine how pleased I felt with myself. Kids who haven’t been immersed in “Amahl and the Night Visitors”, however, may not get what’s going on until the crew meets up with King Herod or enters Bethlehem proper.

By and large Fletcher is just an out-and-out good writer. At one point the story’s heroes are hiding under some blankets on a camel to avoid detection from their enemies. As they sit there they hear a sound like “Pok!”. It becomes clear to Mitra that this is the sound of someone sticking a dagger through the blankets. “I held my breath. Pok! Pok! To my left. Pok! Pok! Somewhere in front of me”. Delicious stuff. Then there are the characters themselves. Mitra, our heroine, is not likable in the least at the story’s start. She works for her own gain, fooling herself into believing that using her little brother is for his own good as well. She’s obsessed with royal blood, to the point where she’ll sacrifice everything to return to her station in life. And like the rat Roscuro in Kate DiCamillo’s, “The Tale of Despereaux”, Mitra craves light at all times. I liked that Fletcher covered her bases. Whenever a character in a book disguises herself as a boy, some inevitable questions come up. How does Mitra pee? What about her period? What happens when she gets that? And her breasts? What about those? Fletcher handles each question in a manner befitting of Tamora Pierce’s, “Alanna”.

Not that the book doesn’t have any flaws, of course. There’s a whole subplot involving Mitra’s attraction to a boy named “Pacorus” that is supposed to help show how she’s evolving into a young woman. Unfortunately it comes across as more of a distraction than anything else. About the time Mitra says, “And Pacorus. What did I want from him?”, you, the reader, don’t really care all that much. Besides, Pacorus seems like a nice enough fellow, but he’s not fleshed out enough to care for. Ah well. Other readers I've discussed this book with have also found it a little slow moving. I, personally, felt the pace suited the style of the book, but I agree that I wouldn't hand, "Alphabet of Dreams" to a reluctant reader. As long as you can get through Mitra's constant yearning for Palmyra (which does get a little old after a while) you'll be okay.

Ms. Fletcher isn’t the first children/teen author to tackle a Biblical story from an alternate point of view. Anne Provoost's, “In the Shadow of the Ark”, for example, took on Noah’s Ark, to say nothing of Madeline L’Engle’s, “Many Waters”, and the too little lauded “The Garden” by Elsie V. Aidinoff. These were all based on Old Testament stories, however, and think as I might, I couldn’t come up with a single children/teen title that used The Nativity as its focus. Plus one of the nice things about this book is that it doesn’t foist any particular religion on the reader. Yes, it’s about The Nativity. But for those who see divinity in the story, that element is there for them. For those who just want a good story without a overt Christian theme, that’s there too. This book has something for everyone. It balances out its storyline with its subject matter delicately. Hats off to Ms. Fletcher for her restraint. If there’s a theme to this book, it concerns itself with a newfangled concept: Do good things and regardless of your station in life you can still attain heaven.

Fletcher, for that matter, has done her research. The “Note From the Author” at the back of the book details how Fletcher went about researching her tale, to say nothing of why she chose to include some elements and not others. It’s here that readers will learn how much of this book is based on historical fact, how much on the Nativity tale alone, how much on the Book of Matthew, etc. Did you know that there was a conjunction of two planets, Jupiter and Saturn, that could easily have been the “star” referred to? Or that the Magi fit beautifully as Zoroastrians? Then she intricately plucks out the geography of the region, citing the locations as they were known in the past and as they are known now. The Works Cited page is beautifully displayed, and it’s clear from her Acknowledgments that Ms. Fletcher was not afraid of legwork. It’s all very impressive.

In a way, this is a Christmas story of an entirely new sort. One that goes to the actual event itself and shows the world at that time and how dangerous it was. There’s magic here and fighting. Escapes and death. Miracles and treachery. All in all, an exciting take on an old tale, and one that’s never been done before. Consider me a fan.

Notes On the Cover: Actually, I was a fan of the cover of the ARC which was a little different than the one they decided to go with in the end. This one's okay, but what's with the white chick? No offense, but doesn't this take place someplace other than middle America? So why present Mitra as someone who'd fit right in with the tennis bunny set? Would it have killed them to get a girl of the Arabic persuasion? I mean, really.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Review of the Day: The Manny Files

Okey-doke, kids. Pencils at the ready. I need you all to name as many out-and-out gay characters found in children’s chapter books as you can possibly think of starting... NOW! *ding* Pencils down. How many did you come up with? Don’t be shy, I want to see your full list. Oooooh. Couldn’t think of all that many, eh? Okay, new quiz. This one’s easier. List all the children’s chapter book characters that are kids and that someday might turn out to be gay when they grow up... GO! *ding* Pencils down. Let me see... ah... Harriet the Spy? Come on. You can do better than that. You know what, let’s just forget the whole thing. After all, I have the answer to your prayers right here. It’s called, “The Manny Files”, and I can guaran-damn-tee you’ve never come across anything like it before. It deeply amusing, genuinely touching, and like nothing you've ever experienced before.

Life has not been easy for Keats. Living with three sisters, two older and one younger, he’s had to endure a steady stream of female nannies for years now. His older sisters always bond with them, leaving Keats feeling a bit out of sorts. Fortunately there’s a solution at hand and it comes in the form of not a “nanny” but a “manny”. The manny is hip, is male, and is fabulous. He’s the kind of guy that's just as comfortable sending the kids to school with coconuts that read, “Be interesting”, as he is blasting bad eighties music from the family van and dressing up to act out opera arias with the children's grandmother. Keats has finally found someone to bond with on his own, but his older sister Lulu is having none of it. The new manny’s extravagance is getting to her and she’s keeping a well-documented folder entitled The Manny Files to record every time the manny, to her mind, steps out of line. Now Keats is going to have to fight to keep the manny in the family, even when he also has to deal with his sick grandmother, camping trips, jumping off the high dive, and a whole host of different challenges and concerns. But sometimes fighting for your manny is the only thing to do.

Basically this book is ideal reading for those kids who already have a manny and would like to read something that comes as familiar to them. I say that, but maybe I’m limiting the scope of this book. After all, a quick perusal of Amazon.com reviews shows that kids have embraced the manny without any hesitation. Now, the character of Keats is a great one. He doesn’t come across as a realistic kid most of the time (his favorite book is one of feng shui) but this is not to say that such a child doesn’t exist. They do. There are small Keats-like children all over the world and as far as I can ascertain, no children’s book has ever been written about one about them with the same amount of humor, aplomb, and sheer guts as “The Manny Files”. The kids who are gay from birth onwards don’t have a whole lot of books about kids like themselves. Not really. So in his own way, Burch is filling a void in bookshelves everywhere. Of course, the book requires a certain suspension of disbelief. Are we to assume that there are actual third graders out there that want to grow up to be concierges at the Ritz-Carlton or the Four Seasons? Or who hope to see Andy Warhol (even though he’s dead) and Liza Minnelli walk through a restaurant door someday? Or who spend all their money on red cashmere socks when they get a chance? You might convince me that a sixth grader would hope and know these things, but someone in the third grade? Really? Really really? And there are a LOT of jokes in this book that kids, and even some teens, will not get. At one point someone says that Keats looks like Ralph Lauren. The statement is quickly followed up by, “India told me that Ralph Lauren was a polo player”. And I mean, was I the only one freaked out by the title, “Skeet, Skeet, Skeet!”? You guys don’t even know what that can mean, do you? Also, the book was published in 2006 and doesn’t seem to be a period piece, yet characters are able to meet their parents in the airport at the arrival gate.

But you know what? It’s funny. I mean really snort-in-your-coffee-while-you’re-trying-to-maintain-some-sense-of-decorum funny. At one point Keats talks about how a former nanny used to dress his sisters up in frilly outfits. His dad said they looked like piñatas, to which Keats replies, “Did it make you want to hit them with sticks?”. My kind of humor! Or howzabout describing a scream of frustration as, “like the ‘Aaargh!’ that Charlie Brown screams every time Lucy pulls away the football in the 'Peanuts' comic strip”. Each entry in Keats’s journal includes a listing of three famous people born on that day. These tend to be more than a little eclectic, as with August 11th’s entry: “Born on this day: Hulk Hogan, Alex Haley, Jerry Falwell”.

I guess it should come as no surprise that when you see a picture of author Christian Burch he looks exactly like the manny he’s described in the book. Bald head? Check. Thick black frames on his glasses? Check. Gay? No idea, but I think it’s fair to guess yes. Former manny? Oh, you betcha. You know, I did find it more than a little odd that the word “gay” doesn’t appear once in this book. For a story that is all about gay men in their many forms, the book seems oddly squeamish over its own subject matter. Some of the references to gay life are so oblique that even adult readers may pass them by. But I suppose Burch wanted this book to be written in the voice of a totally oblivious kid. I don’t know how oblivious a child who knows and loves his feng shui can be, but Keats is supposed to never even question his manny’s preference in mates. Odder still that his nasty older sister wouldn't bring it up either.

By the way, could someone please come over to my computer and inform it that the word “manny” should not be turned into the word “many” whenever my spell-check feels like exerting its powers? Thank you.

Not too long ago I was hanging out with a bunch of librarians who had read this book. As a chorus of one, the crew of them proclaimed in harmony, “I WANT A MANNY!”. It would be fun to catalog the number of events in this book that actually happened to real-life manny Christian Burch too. Since the dedication in this books seems to have been written to eight different children (some with the names found in this book like “India” and “Keats”), I’d say there’s more truth than fiction to “The Manny Files”. And though I take serious issue with the book’s statement that Scrappy Doo is, “the smaller, tougher version of Scooby Doo” (any book defending Scrappy has just given itself a serious deficiency), it’s well worth a read. Light-hearted, fun, and well worth the read.

Notes On the Cover: Making obvious references to “The Nanny Diaries”, Burch’s cover actually comes across as a classier act. The silhouettes, black on a light blue background, display the three most important characters perfectly. Then you have the colorful letters and the manny’s bald head and goofy stance all simultaneously reminiscent of Marry Poppins, albeit a man. It’s great. Colorful but classy.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Into the Woods

Hey, kids. The new Edge of the Forest is up for perusal this month. Do a little old librarian like myself a favor and check out the What's In Their Backpack? section for a larf.
End of shameless self-promotion for 8/26.

Saying "Buffy" To Librarians Is Like Holding A Tasty Bacon Treat Over A Dog

When I say that librarians adore Buffy, I'm not telling you anything you don't already know. But were you aware that Joss Whedon was creating a graphic novel akin to Buffy Season 8? Hmmmm? Well? Were you?
You were?

Cover Band

Y'all know my current overwhelming obsession with the covers of children's books. They're good. They're bad. They're ugly. Well, recently the Penguin Blog (I should make up t-shirts that read Smart Publishers Blog) had a piece up on creating covers for books. Admittedly they've had a good cover year so far. Changeling and Oh Rats both looked mighty fine.

Things To Do Should You Ever Decide To Be Rich

Auctions, aside from ebay, are not for normal everyday schlubs like you and me. They are for the rich. As such, it's just soooo unfair when I hear about something like this. A group named the First Amendment Project is going to be auctioning off "character-naming rights in forthcoming works by prominent authors". What does this mean? It means that Carl Hiaasen's winner's name will "appear at least once as a taxidermied rat in my next children's novel." Even better, Chris Ware (who has an awesome show at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, by the way) will include the winner's name and "approximate drawn likeness" in an upcoming serial comic strip. Though, admittedly, considering how Ware presents his characters, this might be a somewhat depressing prize.

So do any children's authors out there want to place eight fuses in your next children's book? I'll... uh... I'll send you a cupcake if you do! Anything for charity, after all.

Review of the Day: Blood On the River

An author that writes about Indian raids circa the early 1600s is setting themselves up for a monumental challenge. One, quite frankly, that I don’t envy a bit. I mean, it’s a bit easier if you’re taking the side or point of view of the Native Americans. There’s a bit of fear that your story is going to be monumentally depressing, but authors like Joseph Bruchac and Michael Dorris have found ways around that. And then some writers for kids decide to go about it in an entirely different way. Let’s take the P.O.V. of the settlers. Better still, the James Town settlers. Best of all, the boy assigned to be the servant of that remarkable personal publicity machine and self-promoter, Captain John Smith himself. For what she has set out to do, author Elisa Carbone has done an admirable job. I may not agree with whether or not this was a job that needed to be done, but I can appreciate the work she’s put into “Blood On the River”.

Samuel Collier is on a one-way street to nowhere. He’s a thief, a fighter, and he doesn’t trust anyone or anything. As it happens, however, this is an ideal resume for a kid who’s about to be sent to the New World as the personal assistant to Captain John Smith. Samuel is cunning and ready to knock someone’s teeth out should the need arise. Yet as Smith himself points up, there’s no place for people of a solitary nature in Virginia. With the danger of Indian raids ever present and harsh winters ahead, Samuel must learn to trust people and, what’s more, trust himself. Along the way he observes John Smith’s deft hand with dealing with both Native people and frightened settlers. This is the story of James Town, Smith, Pocahontas, and Samuel Collier backed up by historical references and a whole heaping lot of written records, such as they are.

Much of this book cleared up questions I would have had about the original founding of James Town, had I ever thought to wonder them. Why, for example, did the Virginia Company keep sending people to that death trap otherwise known as Virginia? The answer may be that letters home could only talk about the good things about living in the New World. It was a classic case of good publicity vs. bad publicity, with shady means winning out. I also enjoyed hearing how the Algonquian word, “Wow!”, joined our current vocabulary. Carbone even takes pains to justify this term, even the face of those who claim it come from old Scottish. She makes a strong case, and I for one fully believe she’s correct in her assumptions.

The story did worry me from time to time. Sometimes, it all comes down to historical accuracy in direct opposition with our current stance on white colonialism. When John Smith refers to the Indians as “savages” you know it's historically correct, if problematic. And then there's the fact that Smith is always outsmarting the Indians left and right. When they come to trade for weapons he offers them too heavy cannons and, when they can’t lift them, exchanges them for lightweight beads. But if it’s true... which brings us to determining what is and isn’t true.

Carbone’s Bibliography, source material, cited works, and background information are intense. No one could ever accuse this author for fudging her facts. But what are “facts” anyway? Time and again Carbone uses the only existing written record, trustworthy and not. As she mentions in her Author’s Note, the book includes a section where a thresher and a swordfish kill a whale. This was written down at the time, so she included it, “And yet I have heard that fish don’t act this way”. This might not be such a big deal. So fish do one thing and the person she's referencing at this moment said another. Who cares? Well, it becomes a little more important when it comes down to people. After all, “the modern-day Carib Indians say those stories about their ancestors being cannibals are nothing but lies”. Carbone mentions this, but then goes on to make the Indians out to be cannibals anyway! As for John Smith, he was a notorious exaggerator, using the “facts” in the loosest sense of the term. Sometimes this is a good idea. The ceremony that was interpreted as Pocahontas “saving” John Smith’s life is explained here as something Smith could have misinterpreted at the time. And Carbone really does do a good job at showing the delicate nature of balancing out the colonists needs and the Indians. That is, until the colonists just stop caring and go around slaughtering people. Even with a book that takes John Smith’s side, it’s not hard to figure out who to root for.

Not too long ago I heard a group of librarians discussing this book. By and large they enjoyed it, but one scene in particular struck them as a little peculiar. At one point ten-year-old Pocahontas comes into James Town and challenges Sam and the other boys to races. Then, in order to beat them, she removes her dress and is completely naked. Now you would think that considering the time period in which this takes place, the fact that these boys are from England, and the mores of the era that this would at least raise an eyebrow, if not freak out the boys entirely. Instead they proceed without so much as a whimper. Uh-huh. Suuuure.

In her Author’s Note, Carbone talks about how her novel “Storm Warriors” won the Virginia Jefferson Cup Award. As a result, she was able to go about asking people all over the state what kind of story she should write next. “The answer came over and over: Jamestown. I thought, That old story? John Smith and Pocahontas AGAIN? Booooooring!”. But it’s not. Not at all. I may have some qualms and quibbles, but in the end it’s a fine history and a well-made historical novel for the young ‘uns. Smart and well-researched, it deserves to be given a glance by those interested in that period of American history.

Notes On the Cover: The now properly well-known Bagram Ibatoulline (though not for the book I would have preferred that he be known for) does a wonderful job with this cover. Evocative and doing something with the light of the dying day that anyone would envy, it’s just gorgeous through and through.

Friday, August 25, 2006

So dePaolo the Con of Man

I should have posted about this earlier but I had some crazy idea that I'd be able to add a visual to this post. What a maroon!

So I come back from my vacation this Monday to find a big ole pile of packages on my desk. Most of these are from publishers, so I skim them over vaguely, not paying too much attention to each one. There is, however, a single package with its address written by hand. Better still, it has the words "Fuse #8" prominently displayed front and center. That can mean only one thing. PRESENTS FOR ME!!! Delightedly I rip the puppy and shreds and discover....


It was here that I was going to show you a picture of my dePaola Code, signed by not only by everyone's favorite menage a trois The Disco Mermaids but also Tomie dePaola himself. However, I've lost the cord that connects my camera to my computer. Picture forthcoming.

Envious of my present? You needn't be. Cause right now a contest is being held at The Disco Mermaid blog offering up the remaining signed copies. Go and be funny. Tis wit that wins the booklet.

Off-Topic Post of the Day

Go to Gotta Book. Read today's post. Click on Greg's link to a particularly fine commercial. Thank God for the French.

And Don't Even Get Me Started On Their Libraries' Fabulous Children's Rooms

Doggone Brooklyn. With their Oracle and their 826NYC (NOT 826Brooklyn, so how come THEY get to host it?) and their damned difficult to navigate at 2 a.m. subway system. So what do they have on their plate next? Only the Brooklyn Book Festival, the hottest ticket in town and one filled to o'erflowing with children's authors. Don't believe me? Check out these stats:
  • Holly Black
  • Ann Brashares
  • Libby Bray
  • Barbara Ensor
  • Paula Fox (I can't believe they actually got her)
  • Patric McDonnell
  • Kirsten Miller
last but not least...
  • Mo Willems
And that's just the children/teen authors. Of course more children/teen authors live in Brooklyn than any other city in America. Doesn't mean I'm any less envious, though.

The Final Accounting

Tasha Saecker of Kids Lit fame has created a, "del.icio.us page where I am compiling a list of those of us who blog about children's literature". It looks very nice too. There are all sorts of sites I was unfamiliar with in the past. Definitely worth a look-see.

Hearing For Free

Audiobooks are a beast unto themselves. In my library we've a large shelf of them. There, in a wildly conglomerated mix, sit books on tape and books on cd for the taking. Yet I can't tell you how many times someone will ask for their favorite book, say Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, only to find we haven't a copy specifically on tape or cd. Still, with the popularity of sites like Audible.com, the range of ways in which to find and listen to audible books has never been greater.

Which brings us to LibriVox. In a recent New York Times article we learn that this site was created so as to provide free audio books that are in the public domain for anyone to download.
LibriVox’s founder, Hugh McGuire, 32, a software developer and writer in Montreal, said there were another 100 works in development, all of which would be recorded, edited and uploaded by volunteers. “The principles of the project are to be totally noncommercial, totally ad free, totally volunteer and totally public domain,” he said.
Not that LibriVox is the be all and end all in all this audible. After all, when you purchase or borrow a book from Recorded Books, you know that you're going to get some high quality readings. As for LibriVox...
At its worst a free audiobook can sound like a teenager reading aloud in high school English class. At its best it can offer excellent sound quality and skilled narration infused with a passion for the text. In between is a world of competent readings, sometimes spiced with affected accents, mumbled words and distant car horns and reflecting all manner of literary interpretations.
Still, it's hard to deny the charms of that which is free. For those who don't like the selection at their local library or feel a little empty of pocket, maybe LibriVox really is the future. Interesting stuff.

Girls, Girls, Girls

I figure that if A Chair, A Fireplace and a Tea Cozy can post theirs then maybe I can post mine. This is fun. You give this site your picture and they tell you what celebrities you resemble. Apparently I look like Nikki Six. Awesome. Should I ever wish to get a second career as a bassist for Motley Crue, I think I've got an in.

Review of the Day: RULES

When you read a bad book, the aftermath of the experience can leave you shell-shocked for quite a long period of time. Not too long ago I came across the regrettable “The Boy Who Ate Stars” by Kochka and I had a hard time recovering. Kochka, in my view, approached the subject of autism in children as a kind of wild kids-in-touch-with-their-animal side type of story. The whole project left me disappointed and wary of any books written with child audiences in mind that dealt with autism. But then I saw “RULES” and I became sorely tempted to give it a go. From its thoroughly engaging cover (you hear me publishers?) to its incredible characters, smart plotting, and all around classy style, I would recommend this book to any and every child I ran across. This is how it’s done people. This is how you write a first novel.

Now where to begin? I suppose if you asked Catherine herself she’d begin with David. Everyone else seems to after all. David’s eight and autistic. I’m sure you’ve heard stories of autistic children and the difficulties they have dealing with the world around them, but has anyone ever stopped to consider the problems their older sisters face? Sisters like Catherine who’d do anything to have a “normal” life with a “normal” little brother. Not that Catherine isn’t a good sister to David. She’s constantly creating rules for him that will, ideally, help him deal with the real world. Now a new girl has moved in next door to Catherine and her family. She would love to make Kristi a friend, but there’s always the threat that this new girl would be overly freaked out by David. And then there’s Jason, the wheelchair bound boy she knows from Jason’s occupational therapy visits. Pretty soon Catherine’s going to have to decide what kind of a friend she’s really looking for. And the answer may not be the one she has either expected or wanted.

Lord cleverly begins each chapter heading with one of the rules Catherine has concocted for David’s convenience. Of course, not all the rules apply to David. Some of them are the kids of things Catherine has come up with to get by in life. For example there’s, “If you don’t want to do something, say, ‘Hmmm. I’ll think about it’ and maybe the asker will forget the whole bad idea”. My favorite chapter heading? The one that completely does away with any pretense that these rules are actually for David. In short, “Pantless brothers are not my problem”. Nuff said.

One of the many things I loved about this book was how Lord chose to present David. I am so sick of the autistic/handicapped/mentally challenged children’s book character that has to act out the standard saintly two-dimensional role too long carved out in literature. David is a real kid. Yeah, he has autism. Sure. But he also cares deeply for his sister, even to the point where he can engage in a little fishtank-related mischief on the side. Catherine has a rule that there should be no toys in the fish tank. Yet turn around for half a second and there goes David tossing a Barbie or other toy in the briny depths. Younger brother annoyances pure and simple. And Catherine, for her part, is just as real a kid. Do you think she wants to constantly hang out with and babysit her little brother when she’d rather be out getting a new best friend? Heck no! Her attitude towards her little brother is incredibly realistic. On the one hand she’d love it if, “someone would invent a pill so David’d wake up one morning without autism”. But then she’s really a good sister who willingly tags along to her brother’s occupational therapy sessions.

Some people I’ve discussed “RULES” with were a little put out that Lord never comes and out says why Jason is the way he is. He sound paraplegic to me, but that’s just a guess. Also, it was very interesting how Lord chose to have Catherine want desperately to have Kristi as a friend, even though her real best friend would be back at the end of the summer. Why didn’t the book make Catherine one hundred percent friendless? Would that have made her seem too desperate or pandering for attention? Hard to say.

In the end, the real key to the charm of “RULES” is the book’s accessibility. This is a fun read. A fun, not too long, not too drawn out read. It doesn’t preach and it doesn’t simplify. What it does do is present an original story from a unique perspective. I would be intrigued to hear what real siblings of autistic children think of Lord’s work. One of the rare well-written works of literature for young 'uns that kids may actually want to read and reread. In the same class as, “Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key”.

Notes On the Cover: Aw yeah. That’s what I’m talking about. Let’s see just how well it fulfills a cover’s goal, shall we? Does it have anything to do with the plot? Yes! Remember, David is always putting toys in the fish tank in spite of the rule that says not to do so. How are the colors? Vibrant and eye-popping. Not a sepia-toned smear in sight. Most importantly, will this cover engage kids? I dunno. I can ask them if you like. But for my part, if I were ten once again and I saw this cover sitting on a shelf, I don’t think I could prevent my grubby little hands from ah-grabbin’ this beautiful little book. I hope millions of kid have the same reaction over and over again. Top notch work, Kristina Albertson (who also did the cover for Sam I Am) Well done too to, Scholastic! So far you guys are winning my Best Cover Art By a Publisher of 2006 Award. Keep it up.

Check out Cynthia Lord's website and blog for more info.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Bringing With Him the Subtlety of His Performance In Dudley Do-Right

This is one of those cases where you wish the preference of the author had been thoroughly trumped. It looks as if Cornelia Funke has gotten her way and Brendan Fraser has signed on to play Mo in the upcoming and perpetually in production Inkheart. I think I'll bide my time trying to figure out who should play Dustfinger. Howzabout Steve Buscemi?
Many thanks to BookMoot for the link.

I Give Up

I thought I could beat Blogger at its own game by having a lovely little banner at the top of my blog AND search capabilities. Now it looks as if Blogger only allows you to have one or the other. Appparently I can't have a cool banner if I want people to be able to search my archives. It really didn't become a problem until I realized that Google wasn't searching my blog either as a result of the change. Therefore, until someone comes up with a doohicky I can download onto Fuse #8 that will allow people to search within the blog OR my good friend Don comes over and fixes my problems himself, we're back to the old banner. Oh well. Twas fun while it lasted.

For those of you who enjoy the Colbert Report

I'd seen Ok Go's previous video, but the treadmill version was entirely unknown to me. I present it to you here as an off-topic but thoroughly enjoyable bit of choreography. Those of you much cooler than me who've seen it before may feel free to scoff at will.

Review of the Day: Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars - The Fall of the Amazing Zalindas

When I was a kid I loved me my Agatha Christie and Rex Stout. Mysteries were my bread and butter. Today, nothing’s different. Kids are just as enamored of adult mysteries as they ever were. And perhaps the most popular detective with the kiddies (as much as I would prefer it to be Nero Wolfe or Hercule Poirot) is Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is hot these days. To what may we attribute this Holmes-loving trend? The rise of such children’s books as the remarkable “The Case of the Missing Marquess: An Enola Holmes Mystery” by Nancy Springer? The new Sleuth imprint by Penguin? The rise in mystery-minded series books? Or is this a trend begun entirely by publishers with little to no child input? Whatever the case, I hope kids are ready to open up wide and swallow their fair share of Sherlock lore. If they are, Tracy Mack and Michael Citrin’s first installment in their new Baker Street Irregular series, “The Fall of the Amazing Zalindas” should be just the starter Holmes-tale they need.

Ozzie is an orphan. At least, as far as he knows. Though apprenticed to a scrivener by his now dead mother, he’s taken up with a band of ragtag street kids known as The Baker Street Irregulars. Employed from time to time by the great Sherlock Holmes the Irregulars consider themselves top notch streetwise mini-detectives in their own right. Led by the irrepressible Wiggins, the crew has welcomed Ozzie into their fold and just in time. Murder is afoot at the local circus and somehow it seems to involve none other than The Prince of Wales. Ozzie, it seems, has an uncanny knack for deduction, but when the investigation hits close to his home he’ll find himself deeply immersed in perhaps the greatest crime of the century.

I was handed this book recently by some co-workers because I’d been reading too many “meaningful” titles and I deserved something fun. Fun it is too. Action packed and mysterious all at once, this is one of those rare books written for kids that don’t regularly partake of Eragon-sized tomes. There are plenty of small mysteries left unsolved by the end of the tale as well. I suspect that some kids will be able to make a reasonable prediction of who Ozzie’s real father is. The authors also choose to include the standard future-predictin’-gypsy element so popular (not to say, convenient to the plot) in pseudo-fantastical historical fiction. There are some oblique references to Ozzie’s parentage that will certainly come into play in the future books in the series, I have little doubt.

It was clever of Ms. Tracy Mack to attain the aid of her husband Michael Citrin due to his exhaustive Holmes knowledge. The authors are faithful to the original tales, going so far as to allow Holmes to keep pertinent information to himself until the big reveal. They also cover up for the fact that Watson only mentioned the Irregulars in a couple cases because he was jealous of their competence. Poor Watson. He never comes across very well in modern Holmes adaptations. Now for some, the image of Robert Newton’s Baker Street Irregular children’s books still looms large. As a children’s librarian, I can attest that they also get checked out regularly (much to my own surprise). Of course, Mack’s newest book is more accessible to younger children than Newton’s books ever were. However, they aren’t quite as atmospheric or sophisticated. Consider these, instead, more of an introduction to the world of Holmes proper.

In a discussion of this book with other children’s librarians there was a great deal of confusion over the character of the “Zalindas”. In the book they are a circus family that come to a tragic end. In real life, there was also a famous tightrope act once known as The Flying Wallendas. Why did Mack and Citrin feel it necessary to change the name? I suspect it may have something to do with the fact that there are Wallendas performing to this very day. Of course, there is no mention of the real Wallendas in the back of the book, which is a pity. It feels as though Mack and Citrin have passed up a chance to teach kids some interesting history for fear of linking their name to the characters in the book. A bit of a wasted opportunity, no? Kudos, though, for the veritable plethora of fabulous information that IS in the back of the book. Here the average reader may find a Cast of Characters (which probably would have made more sense in the front of the book, but oh well), a Slang Glossary, a fabulous series of instructions concerning Cockney Rhyming Slang, a section of deduction from, “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle”, a bit on The Art of Disguise, a very useful guide to Victorian Carriages, Coaches, and Carts, and even a preview of the next Baker Street Irregular adventure. Phew! And I haven’t even mentioned the historical map on the endpapers that indicates the routes taken by the characters in the book.

Let me not fail to give credit where credit is due to illustrator Greg Ruth as well. As with fellow graphic novel illustrators like Adam Rex, Ruth has switched his focus from DC and Dark Horse Comics to the world of children’s books (including the new Goosebumps graphic series). From time to time his characters come across as a bit too cherub-like in appearance (awww… look at those chubby wittle cheeks!) but by and large they add to the overall atmosphere and feel of the book. I would have given Holmes a bit more of a beaky nose but that's just me.

I was personally pleased (perhaps a little too much so) when I was able to translate the book’s Cockney Rhyming Slang without consulting the glossary at the back. And I haven’t seen a book with as good a secret code as is found in this book since Blue Balliett’s, “Chasing Vermeer”. All in all, “The Fall of the Amazing Zalindas” will serve to please both Holmes purists and newfound fans. I wouldn’t call it particularly complex (check out the aforementioned Springer book, “Enola Holmes” for that) but has a good-natured feel and is bound to be adored by mystery fans everywhere. Well worth the purchase.

Notes On the Cover: Top notch work all around. A tip of the hat to Orchard Books (to say nothing of editor Lisa Sandell) for a book that is both aesthetically pleasing AND something a kid would be inclined to pick up. I’ve grown so tired of sepia-toned folderol that this engaging image of a kid peering out at me while a shadowy figure stands in a tent doorway just blew me away. Even the spine looks nice. Plus, check out the cast headshots on the back cover.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Blogs Are Going All Fourth Wallish On Us

I've always had a real problem with blogs written entirely in a baby's "voice". You know what I'm talking about. "Mama and dada had to change my diaper early today before they took in some marvelous red snapper with a sage marie sauce at their favorite restaurant Le Beouf". That kind of thing. How much different is it, then, when fictional characters start blogging on their own?

At first I was mildly appalled by Chowder's Dog Blog and all that it suggested. Then it got me to thinking. I like this idea. No, really, I do. This could turn into something really grand. Imagine that a kid has a favorite character from a children's book. Now imagine that that character could literally "talk" to them via a blog. It's like the band Gorillaz, all mixing and melding the real with the unreal. What if J.K. Rowling created a Harry Potter blog in the voice of Harry himself while fans waited for the next book? Or, even better, the Count Olaf blog via Lemony Snicket? Are you listening to me, editors, publishers, and authors? We could have something really big here! Free cupcakes to the first children's chapter book character to blog...... GO!

Pure Unadulterated Kiddie Lit Gold

Cheryl Klein has offered a particularly useful post on her blog. Entitled How Do I Become a Book Editor, useful doesn't even begin to describe what Klein has written. Should any of you happen to know someone wishing to switch professions (or, better yet, get one in the first place) consider this link a must read. For fear that you think the job is all sweetness and roses, however, I refer you as well to the dark side of the job.

I Was Willing To Believe In The Pixies One... But Tool? TOOL???

I tend to leave the children's music stuff to my too talented co-worker Warren. As it happens, however, Warren just had his very first child (nicknamed, as of this moment in time, Steamboat). That means that it's up to me to bring the following to your attention:

I dunno, guys. If you want your baby to hear Smells Like Teen Spirit as early as possible, this might be one way to go. I'm not sure if I'd want my kid to fall asleep to it, though.
Thanks, as ever, to BB-Blog.

Review of the Day: My Last Skirt

Once you’ve read enough children’s books where a girl disguises herself as a boy you begin to understand the standard tropes of the genre. The moment when they have to bind their newly growing breasts. The moment when they have to deal with their period. Usually these stories are fantastical in some respect. Almost never are they based on real life historical figures, and even more rarely are they fictionalized real-life stories. But there are exceptions to every rule and “My Last Skirt” is certainly one of these. Taking the rather fantastic story of real-life Civil War soldier and transvestite Albert Cashier nee Jennie Hodgers, the story follows Jennie from Irish sheepherder, New York cashier, soldier, old man, and, finally, old woman. And though I may have some quibbles with how author Lynda Durrant chose to present some of her information, there’s no denying the inherent interest in Cashier’s tale.

It just made good plain sense to Jennie from the start. Boys make more money than girls and Jennie has a boyish face. Put a pair of pants on her and she makes a more than convincing boy. This works well enough when she’s tending sheep in her native Ireland, but it’s even more effective when she and her brother Tom cross the Atlantic sea to start a new life in New York. A tiff between the two leads to Jennie, now known as Albert, to lead a life of her own. Soon enough she joins up with the 95th Illinois Infantry to fight for the Union in the Civil War. Told through Albert’s battles and final late-in-life discovery of her sex, Durrant tracks the life of a women who decided to live her life the way she always wanted to.

Durrant often thinks of things that some wouldn’t when writing a book of this sort. While in the army, for example, Jennie stops having her period because of the lack of nutrition and the extreme physical activity. Left unexplained is how Jennie goes about going to the bathroom while in the army. Especially while on the march. That must’ve took some doing, but it’s left unexplained. Still, there’s quite a nice Afterword and good Bibliography at the end of the novel. This is a title that has been well researched. The sheer number of facts that would threaten to overwhelm the unprepared author are organized and adeptly fictionalized by Durrant.

There were some odd gaps here and there. Oddly, the book leaves unexplained the impetus of poor Southern whites to fight in the war. Over and over again Jennie wonders why the Southerners fight. The only answer she ever receives is a somewhat vague reference to the fact that the Northerners came down so they had to be fought. Readers with any Southern pride will probably chafe at how they’re presented in this book time and time again. Between Arthur justifying the wanton pillage of the South, feeding the victims of the Vicksburg siege and leaving before they can “thank” them, the book never shows the alternate point of view. Kids reading it may end up just as baffled by the end as Jennie herself. There was also the adoption of some slave runaways who join with the infantry. One of them, a fellow by the name of Euripedes, is promoted, in the course of the tale, to Sergeant. Did this happen? Slaves would join with the Union army and get promoted over the white soldiers? When I asked this question of some librarians who thoroughly enjoyed this book, they said that Euripedes didn't receive his promotion until after his death. Yet the book clearly states during the fighting that Euripedes is currently a Sergeant. Confusing.

Another thing I couldn’t quite figure out was why Jennie was so determined to remain disguised as a boy her entire life. Durrant gives us two possible answers: Jennie wasn’t a fan of the restrictive nature of female clothing and she felt that as a boy she could make more money. I’m willing to believe all of that, of course, but once Jennie grows old and is living a truly sad life as a safety-obsessed old man, the reader is left baffled. Why do that? This Jennie is obsessed with buying lock after lock with which to bolt her door at home. She’s miserable, trying to outsmart the local boys and their dogs. Why go through with it? Why not just come out as a woman or move to another city as a woman? There’s some scant hint that maybe Jennie/Albert still enjoys the work she’s able to do once in a while, but it doesn’t seem to be a love strong enough to justify her crummy life. And if it’s because it’s what Jennie’s used to, why the overwhelming fear she continually feels this late in her life?

In this story Jennie falls in love with a fellow soldier in the field. It was a love I personally questioned the necessity of. As Durrant notes in her Afterword, the romantic attachment between these two is fictionalized. Why, then, include it? Though the real Albert Cashier appears to developed an attachment to neither men nor women, putting the character through the requisite romantic paces felt a little forced. There’s certainly enough emotional intensity inherent in the Civil War alone. No need to add in a romance that is presented as a very adult and sophisticated love.

Ah well. It’s an interesting story and one done, you can tell, with a great deal of affection for the real Arthur Cashier/Jennie Hodgers. I do not think this is as strong an effort as it could have been, and perhaps some judicious editing was in order. Still, for those searching for an alternate look at soldiers in the Civil War with an interesting twist, “My Last Skirt” may certainly be a title to consider.

Notes On the Cover: Cleverly done. The book slakes our thirst for pictures of the real Albert Cashier (the book doesn't show any, unfortunately) with the smart juxtaposition of a waist-high shot of Albert and photograph of a woman in a skirt filling out the image. Better still, the cover artist doesn’t rely on just sepia-toning the whole kerschmozzle. Add in the patchworked fabric behind the photo and the cover is both interesting and something a historical fiction-minded child might actually want to pick up. Well done there.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

They So Stole This From Me

I think I've just been blatantly copied. No, really! How else to explain the current Hotties of Publishing, Men's Division currently going on at GalleyCat? Being slow, I didn't vote in time and the results are already in. Worse still, children's literature fan favorite Michael Stearns did not win. That's okay. His mere inclusion means that I can make him a Hot Man of Children's Literature someday.
Thanks to Alice's CWIM Blog for the link.

Hot Men of Children's Literature, Part 24 In a Series

In early August I received the following suggestion:
One more recommendation: Jon Agee. He's the most adorable, delightful
I'm sold. We here at A Fuse #8 Production take our hot men as we can find 'em. Terms like "adorable" and "delightful" made such a choice as this all the sweeter. And, as it happens, I'm a fan of Mr. Agee's work. From The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau to the misleadingly simple Terrific to his great two-page spread in the recent Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road, this guy's got skills.

To this end we salute...


Well played, sir.

I'm More a Brick Testament Fan Myself

Apparently today was a slow news day for CNN. Hence this story about a 92-year-old first time children's author. Says one Ms. Laura Lipari, "I'm not an author ... I'm someone who writes from the heart." As opposed to actual authors. They write from their glottuses, I guess.

Pirate Speak

This Saturday my library is having our final Summer Reading Club celebration from 2-4:30 (to which you are all invited, should you so desire). With that in mind, we are going to make it pirate themed. In preparation I decided to see what piratical goings on I could find online. What I found was Pirate Speak. It's a program that turns all sentences and phrases into their buccaneering equivalents. So, logically, I took some first sentences from children's books and plugged them in. The result:
  • Here be Edward Bear, comin' downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on th' aft o' his hade, behind Christopher Robin.
  • Thar be nay lake at Camp Green Lake.
  • Way ou' at th' end o' a wee wee town be an old overgrown garden, an' in th' garden be an old house, an' in th' house lived Pippi Longstockin'.
  • "'ere`s Papa goin' wi' that ax?" spake Fern t' th' lass' mother as they be settin' th' table fer breakfast.
  • Mrs. Rachel Lynde lived jus' 'ere th' Avonlea main road dipped down into a wee hollow, fringed wi' alders an' ladies` eardrops an' traversed by a brook that had its source away aft in th' wood o' th' old Cuthbert place; 't be reputed t' be an intricate, headlong brook in its earlier course through them woods, wi' dark secrets o' pool an' cascade; but by th' time 't reached Lynde`s Hollow 't be a quiet, well-conducted wee stream, fer nay e'en a brook could run past Mrs. Rachel Lynde`s door without due regard fer decency an' decorum; 't probably be conscious that Mrs. Rachel be sittin' at th' lass' port hole, keepin' a sharp eye on everythin' that passed, from brooks an' children up, an' that if she noticed anythin' odd or ou' o' place she would nererest until she had ferreted ou' th' whys an' wherefores thereof.
  • 't be a dark an' stormy night.

Today I'll Just Refer You To Other Better Blogs

For example, I was greatly impressed by Picture Books I Love For Their Vocabulary piece on What Adrienne Thinks About That. Just my two cents.